Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Raising Art-smart Cyberkids

There is a computer in the children's section at our neighborhood library that is loaded with educational software. Now that my son can walk, he makes a bee-line for it as soon as we arrive. Here we are surrounded by hundreds of beautifully written and illustrated books, but he wants to play with a computer. If it is not already in use he climbs up into the desk chair, makes a grab for the mouse or starts tapping away at the keys. Often, though, another child is playing one of the spelling, math, drawing or music games, and AS contentedly watches. When this first happened, my heart sank a little. Then I reminded myself that 19th century critics were initially skeptical about the applications of the newly invented camera (a "soul-less" black box) until master artists and scientists showed them photography's full potential as a medium for creative expression and learning not unlike a paint brush or a book.

Now I sit down beside AS at the library's computer and use digital painting tools to draw animals with basic shapes that he can identify and label by name, "Cat!", or with a sound, "Meow!". When he eventually loses interest in looking at the PC monitor, we go in search of similar subjects in some of my favorite children's books, such as Geoff Waring's Oscar and the Bird, by illustrators who use Photoshop computer software. I hope a seed of understanding will eventually begin to germinate and help AS form connections between the process of drawing animals with a computer mouse and the images he sees in published books like Waring's illustrations of Oscar the cat.

Our tech-savvy librarian has also hipped me to the fact that some children's book authors and illustrators have launched their own kid-friendly interactive websites. Mo Willems' site features games, art activities and video animations with his famous book characters, including Pigeon, Knuffle Bunny and Elephant & Piggie.

Last week, I received a phone call from my 8 year-old niece asking for help with a multi-player on-line computer game, Poptropica. Poptropica is a safe, virtual world designed by the Family Education Network (a network of educational resources for teachers, parents, and students on the internet) where kids engage in narrative quests that are both entertaining and informative. My niece had entered into a virtual art gallery and needed to match reproductions of paintings with the name of the style in which they were rendered, such as a Pablo Picasso piece with the style "Cubism". She was able to describe the images to me in enough detail that I could envision the paintings and help her successfully complete the task. She was enjoying learning about art, and I was glad to have an opportunity to play along with her.

These experiences recalled a discussion I heard pertaining to the pros and cons of children playing on-line games. Some parents and teachers express concerns that young people who sit in front of the computer for hours every day are more sedentary and have less social interaction than those who are encouraged to play sports or engage in other activities with friends. On the plus side, computer games can motivate reluctant learners by presenting educational content in an entertaining framework and provide a participatory alternative to passive television viewing.

I wondered if there were websites with free on-line gaming options that could teach us more about the city in which we live as my son and I explore them together. I discovered that the Smithsonian Institute, for one, has a Smithsonian Education site to familiarize kids, families and educators with the museum collections, special exhibitions, and upcoming events designed with young people in mind. You may explore different topics that are of interest to your student, "Everything Art", "Science and Nature", "History and Culture" or "People and Places", through interactive games and activities. Or, navigate directly to the Smithsonian Kids page for more on-line fun, such as matching games, trivia quizzes, crossword puzzles, art-making, and home or school project ideas.

The youngest computer users may especially appreciate the National Gallery of Art's interactive website NGAkids "Art Zone". Since a child must develop mark-making ("bang-dots" and scribbles, the most rudimentary visual symbols), prior to forming the controlled lines and shapes that become letters of the alphabet and subsequently the written language, demonstrating and learning how to click and drag a computer mouse to create images is a worthwhile collaborative activity for a parent and child.

The brazen young Dada artists of the first half of the 20th century embraced technology. In the Yellow Manifesto of 1928, the Dadaists proclaimed, "Machinism has revolutionized the world." It seems that nearly a century later many of us are still trying to make peace with youths' manifest fascination with machines, but playing interactive on-line games from the Smithsonian Institution and the National Gallery of Art is one way for families to have fun learning about new digital media together.

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